The Paradox of Christian Nationalism

An American Blind Spot

I would like to make explicit what seems evident to many Christians elsewhere in the world: Christianity and nationalism are incompatible.

For the purposes of this essay, I define Christianity as the beliefs and practices of those who claim to follow Jesus and his teachings, and nationalism as any ideology that elevates the welfare of one nation (usually one’s own) over all others. I recognize that this definition of Christianity is broad to the point of risking being vague, and simple to the point of being simplistic.

While I do not wish to reduce Christianity to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, I think it is helpful to note two conflicting realities. On the one hand, the teachings of these two foundational thinkers of Christianity stand at odds with nationalism. On the other hand, some of the most reductionist (Christianity = Jesus + Paul) Christians in the U.S. have been among the most nationalistic.

What follows is not a critique of Christianity, much less a well-rounded analysis of it, but rather a critique of the nationalistic variety.


Jesus’ Teachings on National Identity

There is no room for nationalism in Jesus’ teaching. The Kingdom of God relativizes all other forms of identity and communal belonging. Your birth family, your career, your financial future, and your material possessions – none of these should matter once you have received Jesus’ call. This is why the apparently unannounced visit by Jesus’ mother and (half?) brothers is so ambiguous and awkward (Mk 3:33; Matt. 12:49; Luke 8:21).

Jesus was not a Jewish nationalist, although according to common expectations the Jewish Messiah was supposed to be. This is the most plausible explanation for why many, including Jesus’ closest disciples, remained confused about his actual mission prior to Easter, even after his repeated explanations. The Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings is far bigger than any one nation and is concerned with power far beyond the mere political and economic.

Jesus’ admonition to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s” aptly summarizes his approach (Mk 12:17; Matt. 22:21). We owe taxes to our respective governments. We owe them that – and that is all. Jesus does not come to usurp Caesar and liberate Israel politically; but Jesus does aim to unseat the Caesars and Herods from the hearts of his listeners.


Paul’s Teachings on National Identity

The Apostle Paul expands on and adds significant clarity to these teachings. In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In human society it is perhaps inevitable that such distinctions would have meaning as social realities, if only to the extent that they are social constructs, endowed with the meaning that people collectively give them. They do serve that function. But should they? According to Paul, nationality, class, and gender are meaningless when compared with the identity believers have in Christ. Such designations divide. There is only room for unity in Christ. That is the ideal.


Nationalists’ Teachings on National Identity

By contrast, the welfare of one particular nation dominates the agenda of every nationalist, even when this is at the expense of other nations. I do not intend here merely those virulent forms of nationalism so obviously toxic to their own adherents and their neighbors that we can easily dismiss them. I also intend the full range of nationalism, including its more subtle variants, which often travel under the guise of labels such as “patriotism.”

The nationalist’s creed is simply this: you should love your nation with all your heart and live in light of that love.

Now granted, some nations are more worthy of love than others. But is any nation truly deserving of complete devotion? This “truth” is not self-evident.

“Americans should love America.” Such assumptions are common enough in American political discourse. But to approach the statement uncritically and/or absolutely is intellectually irreprehensible. Why should Americans love America? How? In comparison to what? To what extent? Any responsible citizen should have reasons why they pledge allegiance, if at all.


The Problem

Nationalism is a totalizing ideology. It demands all. So does Christianity. Christian nationalism represents both a compromised Christianity and a compromised nationalism. The two are incoherent together. There is room neither for political heroes nor for the unbridled pursuit of national interests in the Kingdom of God.

You can be a Christian. Or you can be a nationalist. Not both.

Yes, you can be a patriot. But patriotism must have second-tier status relative to the exigencies of faith, if you are a person of faith; and patriotism can never be uncritical, if you have been given the gift of thought. No nation next to God.

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